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Adventures of a CEO: Five years? That went fast!

Time flies when you're having fun.

We all talk to ourselves occasionally—some more than others—and I became adept at it during the pandemic lockdown. As I started preparing my reflections on the occasion of my fifth anniversary at The Nat, I realized I was in the perfect position to interview myself. So here it is—what I experienced, learned, rejoiced, and lamented at the helm of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Do you remember why you took the job?

I wasn’t planning to leave the Smithsonian—ever. But the more I learned about The Nat and about San Diego, I realized this was an opportunity to return to my native southern California and make a difference in its environmental future. As much as I loved the work and my colleagues at the National Museum of American History, I’m a field biologist by training, and at heart, and this position took me closer to my passion.

What surprised you?

What didn’t surprise me? I did a lot of research about The Nat and met the search committee and executive staff, but there is no substitute for being in the job. I was glad to see the commitment and excellence of the staff, and surprised by the reach and reputation of a medium-sized regional museum in this corner of the country. I was also happy to see that even long-time staff members were welcoming and open to the changes I was about to bring.

Were there any bad surprises?

I knew that buildings sometimes hold unpleasant problems, but wasn’t prepared for the failure of our fire suppression system. After a major leak in my first month on the job we determined that we needed to replace more than a mile of piping that served the sprinkler system, and in the meantime implemented an around-the-clock fire watch. There’s nothing more important than our people and our collections, so with the help of some generous and good-humored donors we launched a replacement project that took more than a year to complete. The building continues to throw curve balls our way, but we’re getting out in front of the problems with a master plan that outlines our needs for the next 20 years.

Twenty years?

When you work in museums you have to have a very long view of time. We’re nearly 150 years old, and my job is to help us get ready for the next 150 years. We keep our collections in trust, in perpetuity, for science and the public. The next 20 years will be influential for the future of our region. Actions we take over this period could help mitigate climate change and create a more livable future for wildlife and people across our region.

What do you count as successes?

Making it through the pandemic (so far) intact merits its own answer—more on that later. We accomplished a tremendous amount in my first four years, before the shutdown and eventual reopening. Our new strategic roadmap provided a very strong compass: putting our science first, recommitting ourselves to addressing conservation issues, focusing and strengthening our education. We also devoted significant effort to creating a master plan for the building that outlines how to reduce our carbon footprint, identifies ways for the building to better support our mission, and plans for better experiences for our visitors, staff, and volunteers. We also created a more risk tolerant and innovative culture through our Evolutionary Venture Fund, which fueled entrepreneurial projects, and encouraged everyone to contribute ideas to improve everything from operations to scientific equipment. By the time indoor activities were shut down, we had a more agile workforce that understood the need to band together, shift gears, and pitch in to help us thrive without our beloved building. 

How did you make it through the pandemic? 

Day by day, and keeping an eye on where we wanted to be when we pulled out. We had an excellent group of executive staff, a smart and experienced Board of Directors, and staff who understood the need to put the well-being of the Museum ahead of program needs. With excellent financial management, strong support from the philanthropic community, and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, we managed to retain almost all of our full-time staff and cover health benefits for the people who were furloughed. I focused on communication so that everyone knew as much as I did about the certainties and uncertainties, and attended a lot of Zoom meetings. I also knew that as horrifying as the pandemic was—personally and professionally—it provided an impetus for reflection and change. By keeping some of our focus on our long-term goals we were able to learn new skills, experiment, and emerge with new strengths.

What do you count as failures?

Failures might be too strong a term. In our risk-tolerant environment, we definitely tried some things that didn’t work the way we expected. The key was to learn and move on. We’re working on our fourth iteration of the café since I arrived. We’ve tinkered with evening hours and tried keeping the Atrium and first floor open without an admission charge. After analysis we settled on summer Fridays for the rooftop bar and abandoned the notion of a free first floor due to operational challenges—instead we focus free admission efforts on programs such as Museums for All and Resident Free Days. 

What surprised you about San Diego?

My entire career was at the behemoth of the Smithsonian Institution and working on the national level, so I learned a lot here about civic pride and role of the Museum in the community. Any move that far is a little dizzying, and I was amazed by the warmth of the welcome from many sectors across the region. The dedication I see toward creating a better future for San Diego is inspirational.

What do you love about living and working here?

I was going to get through an entire interview without mentioning the weather. I grew up at the beach in LA, so I feel like I finally have the weather I always deserved. I absolutely love the emphasis on outdoor activities and nature. I get out on the hiking trails at every opportunity, and during COVID that meant every weekend. We have amazing natural areas, with a wide variety of ecosystems to explore. My best days at work are when I’m visiting our scientists in the field. I also love living this close to Mexico. In normal times I crossed the border frequently to explore the nature, culture, food, and wine that the Baja Peninsula has to offer. I have yet to drive the length of the Peninsula, and it is on my job-related bucket list. I treasure the opportunity to work with our staff, Board and volunteers. As a group they are talented, dedicated, creative, and a lot of fun.

What do you miss about DC?

Other than my friends and former colleagues, who occasionally turn up in the winter, I miss the international nature of life and work in the DC area, and the interest in international affairs.  And I miss having free and easy access to the great museums in Washington, D.C., and New York.

What’s next?

We’re turning our attention to the organization’s 150th anniversary. In fact, my attention has been on 2024 since my first interview for the job, and much of my leadership has been devoted to getting us ready for our next 150 years. We have some wonderful and transformational projects in the planning pipeline that will enhance visitor experiences, expand our education outdoors, support the science that makes conservation possible, invest in our incredible staff, and shore up our financial base. Stay tuned!

Posted by President and CEO Judy Gradwohl.

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